Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/26/2015 in Novato, CA.
1 Samuel 15
“What Then Is This Bleating Of The Sheep”
Partial obedience is disobedience. I’m not sure who first said that, but it’s a memorable truth. And it’s what we are reminded of in today’s passage. We studied this passage last week in terms of how God had sent Saul on a mission to bring his divine wrath on these enemies of God’s people. Of course, we noted how Saul failed in completing that mission. Today we will look a second time at this passage, but this time we’ll focus in on the sin of Saul’s partial obedience. And we’ll see how this resulted in God’s rejection of Saul as king.
So then, let’s consider the big picture first. Let’s observe first God’s Word to Saul and his rejection of it. This first point is inspired from verse 26. Let’s look at it again. In verse 26 Samuel says this to Saul, “…You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” In other words, this is God’s interpretation of Saul’s actions. God had given Saul specific instructions. It’s the divine mission we discussed last week. He was supposed to completely destroy the Amalekites. He was not leave any of them alive. He was also to completely destroy all of their livestock. They were being banned from taking any of it back as spoils of war. That was the Word of God delivered to Saul, via the prophet of God. These are the clear instructions of verses 1-3.
But Saul did not fully obey these words from the LORD. Now, yes, he did partially obey them. He does gather a large army, employ the military strategy of an ambush, and attack the Amalekites, per verses 4-7. He does generally put them all to death, with one exception, however. He took alive King Agag, verse 8. And they do generally destroy much livestock, but there is a big exception, per verse 9. They only destroy the despised and worthless portion of the livestock. But the best of the livestock they did not destroy. This is in direct violation of God’s instructions. God gave very clear instructions. On the one hand, it looked like they largely accomplished God’s mission. It looked like they did much of what God asked. And yet we read in verse 26 that God was not pleased with this. This partial obedience did not satisfy the requirements of God. Rather, God said that Saul’s failure to fully carry out his mission represented a rejection of God’s Word. Partial obedience is disobedience.
To further bring home the evil here, note how verse 9 describes why they didn’t destroy all the livestock. It says there that they were unwilling to utterly destroy them. They were unwilling. In other words, they refused to do it. They wouldn’t bring themselves to do what God had instructed. Here’s where the original language really brings out their disodience. When it says they were unwilling to utterly destroy this good spoil, the word for “utterly destroy” is a form of the Hebrew word of herem. That is that word for holy war that we discussed last week. It was the word used in the specific instruction God gave Saul in verse 3. To give you a sense that this was not an everyday sort of word, it appears only 8 times in the whole book of 1 and 2 Samuel, and all 8 times are in this chapter. And so verse 9 is specifically noting that they were unwilling to the do specific thing God told them to do. In other words, this wasn’t just some misunderstanding of the instructions. Nor was it like they tried to accomplish the full mission but the job was too big. Nor was it like they overlooked certain details inadvertently. It was a willful rejection of God’s word, and King Saul led them in this rejection.
Now, if I were an Israelite then, I can appreciate why you might want to keep some of the spoil. Wouldn’t it seem like such a waste? And you put your life on the line and go to battle, only to come back with nothing? What harm would it be to take just some of the livestock as spoil? Not all of it. Just some of it. But God’s word is clear here. Partial obedience is disobedience. Saul led the people in rejecting God’s Word.
So then, let’s turn next now to our second point and review Samuel’s meeting with Saul after he failed in only partially obeying God’s Word. This is when God confronts Saul through his prophet Samuel. This begins in verse 10. Look with me there. Again the word of the LORD came to the prophet Samuel. He explains to Samuel how Saul has not performed his commandments. That’s verse 9. Don’t miss this. This passage says it in so many ways that Saul’s partial obedience was a complete failure. God says there in verse 9 how Saul has turned back from following God and not performed his commandments. There’s an application here. This is not how us humans tend to think. We like to judge ourselves on a curve. We like to give ourselves some credit for at least doing something. But that’s not how God assessed Saul’s obedience in verse 9. This is an area to grow in for us: to seek to assess obedience in the way God assesses it. On a related note, look how Samuel then responded to Samuel’s disobedience when God tells him this. At the end of verse 11, he is grieving all night about it. That’s the heart to pray for on this. That instead of giving ourselves credit for our partial obedience, we should grieve over the reality of our disobedience.
So, God sends Samuel to confront Saul. Samuel goes and seeks him out. It takes him a little effort we see in verse 12, because evidently Saul has been off setting up a monument for himself! Presumably this is a monument to record his great victory here against the Amalekites. Well, in verse 13, Samuel finally meets up with Saul, and look at how Saul greets him. Saul gives Samuel a very warm greeting, and reports to him that he has performed the commandment of the Lord. Do you see how verse 13 stands in direct contrast with verse 11? Verse 11 records God saying that Saul had not performed the commandments of the LORD. Verse 13 records Saul saying that he had. Mind you we are not told here that Saul was trying to lie to Samuel here. You get the sense here that Saul might really think he did follow God’s command. But God clearly says that he did not.
So then verse 14 is classic. Prophets often spoke in poetic ways, and Samuel replies to Saul in such a way. Samuel responds to Saul’s incorrect claim that he kept God’s commands, by saying, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” In other words, Samuel points to the material evidence right there which contradicts Saul’s claim. Saul claimed to keep God’s commands, but here is all this spoil of livestock which God had said to destroy. It’s there, and it’s not destroyed! Of course, Saul is not without a quick explanation. These were brought to sacrifice to God, he claims. And so in verse 15 he tries to explain away his disobedience. Notice in verse 15 the change of pronoun, by the way. Before he confidently claimed “I” performed the commandment of God. But then in verse 15, when talking about the spoil, he changes to the third person; “they” have brought” this spoil back to sacrifice. “The people” spared these animals. And then he changes back at the end of verse 15; but the rest “we” have utterly destroyed. Saul includes himself in the obedience, but seems to exclude himself from the disobedience. It’s like Adam in the garden — “it was that woman you gave me!”
But Samuel would not tolerate his excuses. He immediately in verse 16 interrupts Saul saying, “Be quiet!” Samuel then recounts in verses 17-19 God’s assessment of the situation. Again, it’s clear, that God sees that what Saul had left undone represented disobedience. And God’s words there start out there in verse 17 by pointing out how before Saul had been humble. Now, God challenges his arrogance in “swooping down” on the best of the spoil. That language of swooping down on the spoil in verse 19, is again God telling us how he sees things. God who knows the hearts of men did not see even good intentions in the peoples’ actions of sparing the spoil. Rather, he describes their actions like a bird of prey swooping down on its prey.
After this more detailed rebuke by God through the prophet Samuel, the next response by Saul is a bit surprising, but maybe not really. Saul replies in verse 20 by again affirming that he followed God’s command. He basically says, “But I did do what God told me to do.” I did attack the Amalekites. I did utterly destroy them.” And in the next verse, he again shifts the blame. But the people took of the plunder which should have been destroyed. But they took it only so they could sacrifice it to God. And so the picture you get here is that Saul is arguing with God! God says he’s guilty, and Saul has the audacity to yet continue to claim that he had completed the mission God gave him. And so this at first sounds surprising for Saul to respond like this, but then you remember how kids so often respond to their parents when they are first confronted with something they did wrong. They do so often the same exact thing. They argue with their parents, but trying to explain how they really did do what they were asked, or by blaming someone else. (Children, don’t do this!) And yet, if we all examine ourselves, we’ll find it’s not just the children who struggle with this. Neither adults or children like to be confronted with our sins and failures. Too often we try to offer excuses or to shift the blame. We can try to justify ourselves. And we tend to usually believe it, even. We can be so self-deceived. I mean just look at Saul. Not only does he repeatedly claim to have so fully kept God’s commands, but just a moment ago he was off building himself a monument to commemorate his achievements!
And so Samuel yet again confronts Saul’s self-justification and his passing of the buck, with some more prophetic poetry in verses 22-23:
Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.
And so not only does Saul keep affirming his innocence, God keeps up time and again here explaining his view on obedience. These are important verses here on this subject. God says that it’s better to obey God than to give sacrifices. This is an interesting thought. People often think they can get away with less than perfect moral living because they do some religious acts of worship. But in reply,
God says here that rebellion and stubbornness is like witchcraft and idolatry. In other words, our acts of moral disobedience are akin to false acts of worship. And so to think you can balance your wickedness with acts of right religious worship, is wrong, because God says that your wickedness is like an act of false religious worship. Those things stand in opposition to each other! And yet too often down through the ages, people thought they could live life however they wanted, do a little act of worship here and there, and think they’ve pleased God. But time and again God steps in and tells us his heart. It’s not that he’s opposed to sacrifices and religious worship. There is a value in such things, rightly offered. But God especially desires a people who are faithful and obedient to his Word.
Well, let’s turn now to our third point, and consider the punishment God places upon Saul. We just read in verse 23 that punishment. God has rejected Saul as king. This is stated like this in verse 23. It’s stated in pretty much the same terms in verse 26. In both places, the connection is made with how Saul rejected God’s Word; that’s why God is rejecting him as king. This is a great example of the lex talionis principle; an eye for an eye; the punishment fits the crime. God also communicates this message through a sort of acted out parable in verses 27-28. As Samuel turns to leave, Saul reaches out to stop him, grabs his robe, and it tears. So, Samuel uses that as an analogy that God has torn the kingdom away from Saul and given it to one of his neighbors. And so, God was making all this very clear. We see language here in verse 29, even, of how firm God was in this, and that he was not going to change his mind about it.
Well, when Samuel starts talking about Saul being rejected as king, this finally gets Saul’s attention. Immediately after that, in verse 24, Saul at least in his words, admits his guilt. He says that he sinned, that he transgressed the command of God, and feared and obeyed the people instead. He then in verse 25 asks that his sin be pardoned. Now, we don’t know if Saul’s heart was really in this or not. He’ll make a similar confession and appeal again in verse 30. But in both places, Saul’s motivation it seems is especially about how he appears before the people, particularly the elders of the people. At his first confession of sin, he says he wants Samuel to go with him to worship God. But then at his second confession of sin, in verse 30, we that this involved him wanting himself to be honored before the elders. And so it’s not entirely clear what Saul’s motivation is here. That he is truly repentant, is hard to imagine given how God responds to him here. It seems that he’s hoping to do some damage control by getting Samuel to come back with him. I could see the logic. If Samuel just publically announces that God is rejecting you as king, you might want that announcement to be removed ASAP. If he can get Samuel to come back with him and go with him to worship God, it might look like God has accepted Saul’s repentance and restored him as king.
Well, regardless of Saul’s motivation, and regardless of what the people did or did not perceive about all this, one thing is clear by the end of this chapter. God is not changing his mind with regard to Saul’s kingship. You might recall that back in chapter 13, God had already told Saul that he would not allow his kingdom to endure after him. There would be no dynasty of kings from the line of Saul. But now, God is going even further and outright rejecting Saul himself as king. The consequences are immediate. We see at the end of the chapter, that after this Samuel no longer goes to visit Saul. Samuel then goes into mourning for Saul. And then in the very next chapter, God sends Samuel to anoint David to be the next king of Israel.
And so finally, we’ve come up to that point. We’ve seen several references to the new better king God would be raising up to replace Saul and his line. Back in chapter 13, God said he wanted a man after his own heart. In chapter 14, we realized that the people needed a king who would do what was right in God’s eyes. Now in this chapter, we saw the prediction in verse 28 of how God would give the kingship to a “neighbor”; one who is better than Saul. In the immediate, that will be King David, starting next chapter. Well, at least somewhat starting next chapter. David will be anointed, but Saul will keep on reigning for quite some time, and there will yet be an exciting story played out of how Saul is ultimately removed as king, and David raised up to take the throne. In the mean time, Saul, David, and Jonathan, will have many interactions.
But the point for today is that God is bringing David who will be a better leader. God wanted a leader that would not obey him just partially, but that would offer full obedience. And yet of course the larger point we keep making is that ultimately will make us have to look beyond even King David. And so we look again today ultimately to an even better king and leader. God will bring forth King Jesus from the line of David. King Jesus would obey God’s will perfectly and completely. Jesus said in John 6:38 that he came to do the will of his heavenly father. And he did, and he did it to the full. No partial obedience for King Jesus. It was full obedience.
It’s interesting that in that verse from John that I just quoted, that in the next verse Jesus goes on to describe some of that mission and will of God that was given to him. Jesus says this in John 6:39, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” And so central to Jesus’ mission is to save those whom God chose for Jesus to save. How would that be possible, given the fact that such people are sinners? That such people, including you and me, have not fulfilled all God’s commands in the full? That we have at best only completed them partially, and as we said, partial obedience is disobedience?
Well, in order to complete his mission, Jesus did not just stand around blaming the people, which would have been right and true and deserved. But he couldn’t have accomplished his mission to save if he just did that. And so Jesus ultimately took the blame of his people upon himself. And he gave himself up as a sacrifice to God for the sins of his people. What a wonderful gospel message. In today’s chapter, we are reminded that ultimately God desires obedience over sacrifice. That serves to remind us how desperate of a situation we would be in if there was no gospel of Jesus Christ. Because none of us have obeyed God fully and completely every day of our lives. No, our lives are a record of our imperfect and partial obedience at the best. Rather our record is full of even blatant and willful disobediences to God. But the gospel of Jesus Christ has come to say this: The obedience that God wants first and foremost: he will take Christ’s perfect and complete obedience and credit it to us. It’s as if his obedience was our own obedience. And then he goes one step further and does offer yet a sacrifice. Jesus himself bears that herem like wrath of God as he hung there on the cross, in our place. That our sins would be fully atoned for. So that there remains no more guilt. So that in Christ he does truly and completely pardon each and every one of our sins. And here’s when we are so thankful that God’s ways are not partial or incomplete. Everything we need for our complete salvation is achieved for us by Christ.
So then, we trust in King Jesus, the Anointed One, the Long Awaited Messiah. And having known this amazing and underserved forgiveness of sins, we rejoice. And it’s my prayer that as we leave today that we’ll be reflecting more on the character of God. Having been saved fully and completely despite all our sins, we are reminded a bit about God’s heart today concerning obedience. Having known God’s grace in how he forgives us of our sins, we remember how Paul asked the question, “Should we sin, so that grace abound?” And of course the answer is “No!” Of course not! Even though God forgives us fully and completely of our sins, he didn’t save us so that we would just keep living in our sins. No, he saved us, to save us out of those sins. And so we should endeavor now to live in obedience to God. Well, that being the case, we’ve been reminded of two practical points about such obedience. One, we should strive for full and complete obedience in every detail and in every aspect of our life. And two, we should see the priority of obedience over sacrifice. Yes, the sacrifice of Christ is completely sufficient to forgive us of our sins. As we struggle in our obedience, his sacrifice is sufficient to keep us always in the household of God. And yet, may we not use that as an excuse for failing to seek to put our sin to death. It’s a common temptation. We can excuse our sin because of the cross. We say things like, “Yes, I shouldn’t give in today to this sin, but I know Jesus will forgive me.” Let us not mock the grace of God like that. Rather may God’s grace mock such thinking. That’s not to be our mind any longer. And so, yes, we are so amazed and so thankful that God accepts Christ’s sacrifice and obedience in place of our lacking righteousness. And yet in light of that, may we strive by his grace toward being better people. Because Christ our Lord is that better neighbor talked about here. Live in his lead. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.